Thursday, August 8, 2013

"Learning Styles" vs. Personally Optimized Learning Experiences

I've been following a debate on a LinkedIn group on the value considering "learning styles" when designing online learning experiences.  The Wikipedia definition of learning styles is: "an individual's natural or habitual pattern of acquiring and processing information in learning situations."  One of the most commonly used learning style categories are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.  The following is an adaptation/expansion of a comment I posted to the thread...

Like, Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences "learning styles" are ways of trying to classify or make sense of the idea that each human being is unique, and therefore the factors to optimize learning for each person, within each learning experience, are unique.  The theories are attempts at moving away from one-size-fits-all "factory" models of education to more individualized approaches.  Many of the comments on the LinkedIn thread express the opinion that these theories  fall short, have not been proven, and can sometimes be a distraction from the more important factors that affect learning. 

When considering validity of a learning sciences theory, the context and application are important.  Under the constraints of teacher-centric, resource constrained, classroom models, there is no evidence that trying to deliver instruction to each learner's perceived "learning style" is a good approach.  However, design of online/interactive content can include multiple paths, experiences,  and modes of delivery that the learner can self-select. This seems to be a more valid application of the concept. It doesn't require a teacher or artificial intelligence engine to make a judgement about segregating learners by "styles." Instead it provides the learner with the ability to try multiple 'styles' of information delivery and/or different kinds of learning experience until the learning goal is reached.   (I don't know if there is research that compares the effect size of online content that provides multiple delivery "styles" vs. single delivery "styles," but I suspect there is value in providing the learner with alternative delivery options.)

In my opinion, the role of the learning sciences is to better understand those factors that may impact an individual's learning, to test methods designed to optimize factors in delivery of a learning experience, and to determine if those methods impact learner outcomes, generally or for specific populations/conditions. 

Today we think of Vygotsky's ZDP theory as "just good teaching practice," (quote from the LinkedIn discussion), but there was a time when the concept was not considered, and unfortunately is still widely ignored in the practice of group-centric fixed-pace instructional models.  This is why we can't rest on what we know (and do).  What the education and training communities have to offer is not working well enough for many learners.  There is much more research to be done, more learning innovations to be discovered, and a great need for improvement of methodologies toward personally-optimized learning experiences.

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